Tuesday 5 June 2012

What lies beneath: "The Pact", "The Innkeepers" and the return of the minor key

One of the reasons Prometheus appears to have disappointed some is its distinctively low key: rarely can there have been such a discrepancy between the loud fanfaring of a film's publicity and the cool, quiet tenor of the film itself - a state of affairs which just goes to show Hollywood (and its PR wing, in particular) knows nothing anymore, if it ever really did. Yet after two-and-a-half decades of event movies, each one attempting to outholler the last, the return to a minor key in American filmmaking is something to be encouraged and nurtured. If Hollywood can no longer play the top notes - as a spate of noisy misses, revivals and duds suggests it can't - than it'd do well to develop the lower end of its scale, and a pair of independently produced haunted-house movies opening in the UK this Friday provide a possible way forward in this respect.

In The Pact, an appreciably controlled feature debut from writer-director Nicholas McCarthy, a young woman returns to her childhood home in the wake of her mother's death, only to find that her older sister has also vanished, after abandoning her young daughter with a friend. We twig these girls have problems beyond the realm of the supernatural, and for our heroine Annie (Caity Lotz), who's roared back into town on a signifying motorbike, her sibling's disappearance is nothing out of the ordinary: "That's what this family does when times get tough - we take off." From this point on, McCarthy largely forsakes externalities - no lashings of gore, no splashy digital effects - to burrow inwards, both into this family's history and into the house itself, with the discovery of walls within walls, layers under layers; it's an oddly scholarly film, seeking out creepy or illuminating details on or in maps, censuses, photographs and websites. (McCarthy is particularly good on the bonding properties of ice cream.)

If the film falls back on some old familiar tropes elsewhere - seances and poltergeists, Psycho-ish peepholes and plotting, plenty of things that go bump in the night - it's held together by a very credible performance from the hitherto unknown Lotz, a dead ringer for Heather Graham whose armoury of stomping movements and fierce stares mitigate against any lingering winsomeness. Unusually for a male-authored horror movie, The Pact finally turns on female empathy: the title presumably refers to the accord between a mother and her daughters, but it's also there in the faith Annie places in a psychic friend from the wrong side of the tracks (Agnes Bruckner) - a belief in supernatural forces that, to his detriment, isn't shared by the male detective working the disappearance angle. It should tell you everything you need to know about the low key McCarthy is operating in that the latter role is filled by former Starship Trooper Casper van Dien.

The Innkeepers [pictured above], the latest addition to the oeuvre of the very promising Ti West (The Roost, The House of the Devil), is more expansive: its budget extends to hiring a well-appointed location (the real-life Yankee Pedlar Inn in Torrington, Connecticut), and populating its corridors with a handful of recognisable faces and names. Still, it qualifies for this low-key bracket in that most of its running-time is taken up with downtime. Luke (Pat Healy) and Claire (Sara Paxton) are a couple of sarky, snarky kids working in the reception area of a modern American hostelry slowly being drained of clientele and other life by neighboring Best Westerns and Howard Johnsons: you know, the kind of sterile, interchangeable corporate environments where nothing interesting ever happens.

Nothing much happens here, either, for the film's opening half-hour. Luke and Claire have the odd guest to check in, but mostly they're left to eat sandwiches, bicker and surf the Net; the most dramatic action of its early chapters comes when Claire pops out to an adjacent diner for coffee, where she's met by Lena Dunham playing a waitress called Elysabeth - of course Elysabeth-with-a-y - who, in an amusing play on the actress's inchoate star persona, sets the heroine to flee with a sudden blast of over-sharing. What West has has done, in effect, is cross-fertilise the traditional haunted-house picture with the drollery of slacker comedy: his bored heroes will eventually go looking for ghosts because, well, it's something to do. Surprisingly - perhaps even shockingly - they find them, too.

The House of the Devil was so precise in its recreation of a 70s TV movie aesthetic that, for all its zest and brio, its appeal may have been limited to fanboys. The Innkeepers, by contrast, looks and sounds like a more considered bid for multiplex play: Jeff Grace's score could well have been lifted from a Touchstone horror-comedy from 1989, while West goes about bolstering (and undercutting) his scares with laughs, in the way a Joe Dante or John Landis used to. Healy's re-emergence from the little boys' room in the middle of one suspense sequence is a nice gotcha, but much of the film depends on Paxton's endearingly daffy reactions to anything that might remotely put the wind up her. (Given how uneventful Claire's life is, it doesn't take much.) West lures us in with the suggestion this location is simply too homely to contain properly dark shadows, and that our heroes might just be punking one another, but gradually it emerges there really are other spirits hanging around with nowhere better to go.

It's a less serious proposition than The Pact - an old-fashioned creepshow, such as the major studios used to be relied upon to make from time to time - but West has real fun with his setting, characters and actors: after her appearance in last year's very strong Stake Land, there's another worthwhile genre outing for Kelly McGillis, as the Shirley Maclaine-like actress who's checked in with a case full of healing crystals, and may know more than she's willing to let on. Telling that both of these movies should turn on what's lurking in the basements of their respective properties: at a time when mainstream American cinema has started demanding we look up at the screen in awe, even when there's no longer anything awesome to be observed there, The Pact and The Innkeepers are films that quietly (and, in West's case, almost shruggingly) implore us to look down and notice that they're there - to spot whatever ripples and tremors are coming up from the underground.

The Pact and The Innkeepers open nationwide from Friday.

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